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Raising the bar

In 2001, when 10 Gigabit Ethernet switches were introduced, the average per-port cost was $39,000, according to IDC. Today, a 10G Ethernet port costs less than $2,000, which makes 10G Ethernet switches affordable for the enterprise wiring closet or data centre.

With ongoing data-center server consolidation, not to mention the needs of service providers and high-volume Web sites, standards groups and vendors are hard at work on 40 Gigabit Ethernet and even 100 Gigabit Ethernet. For now, however, 10G Ethernet is the industry standard, and customers are flocking to 10G Ethernet switches. Switch-based 10G Ethernet port shipments grew by 140% in 2007, Infonetics Research reports. Worldwide revenue for 10G Ethernet services and equipment will hit nearly $9.5 billion by year-end, a 30% increase from last year, the firm predicts.

If your Fast Ethernet boxes are becoming stressed, this might be the time to move to 10G Ethernet. Per-port prices are coming down and feature sets are going up. A recent Network World test of seven 10G Ethernet switches found these products offer not only powerful packet-pushing capabilities but also 802.1X authentication, enhanced multicast support, protection against denial-of-service attacks and IPv6 support. The test demonstrated that these switches have extensive management and security features, which are just as important as how many packets they can move per second.

What is pushing the demand for 10G Ethernet switching among users? A variety of reasons. “CIOs will respond to the economic downturn by focusing core spending on mature and proven technology, which will support measureable improvements in areas of application performance and convergence, and enable increasing levels of virtual business activities. This trend, along with continued adoption of virtualization, cloud computing and Web 2.0 applications, will drive demand for 10GbE,” says Maxelino Nelson, Business Development Manager, Enterprise Data Networking & Security, Alcatel-Lucent.

Every 18 months, bandwidth needs double in the core of Ethernet networks in major corporations, internet exchanges and ISPs, driven by a combination of more users, more applications and more access technologies. Mahmoud El Ali, GM of 3Com, says many companies are upgrading their networks now, as applications such as unified communications, video and data replication raise the need for more bandwidth. “Data centres with 250 plus servers may even now be streaming 2.5 Gbps of throughput over a 1-Gbps connection – with the obvious impact on productivity and availability – and the move to 10GbE becomes even more urgent. For any enterprise, 10-Gigabit Ethernet is the perfect aggregation technology when deploying gigabit to the desktop or for interconnecting core and distribution switches.”

As the demands of mission-critical and real-time applications continue to expand, servers must offer higher processing capabilities in order to keep up. “Because existing switch architectures can’t handle the data throughput required for these applications, they are fast becoming bottlenecks,” says Ahmad Mubarak, Enterprise Systems Engineer, Nortel Middle East.

An opinion echoed by Majdi Babaa, Technical Manager, Extreme Networks : “ Use of 10 GbE in the datacenter, which is really hot, today is driven by the use of multi-core CPU’s, virtualization and the availability of affordable 10 GbE fixed switches.”

The other driver is cost. “With 10 GE per port costs going down, the adoption of 10 GE is increasing on enterprise and service provider backbones as well as data centre backbones. We are seeing a categorical increased demand for 10 GE; even customers who do not have a present need for 10 GE, are securing any investment they make today by being able to do a seamless migration towards 10 GE without the need for future forklift upgrades once the need arises. They are doing so by investing in 10 GE ready switches, without necessarily investing in the 10 GE interface themselves,” says Khalid Khalil, Sales Manager-CEMA, Brocade.

For the next 2 or 3 years, 10GbE will probably be used exclusively for backbone applications and datacentres where the value of the equipment and data makes it the best protection of investment. By the time 10GbE has advanced to the domain of workstations, the standard for energy efficient Ethernet will have been ratified (IEEE P802.3az Energy-efficient Ethernet) and reductions in acquisition and running costs will make 10GbE more widely available, adds El Ali.

What to look for?

Network managers may need a whole new lexicon just to make buying decisions as these next-generation switches bristle with features that don't exist in many previous models – not just physical features like 10Gigabit Ethernet uplinks but also 802.1X-based network access control authentication, enhanced multicast support, storm control, denial-of-service protection and IPv6 support. Rabih Dabboussi, Systems Engineer Director at Cisco Gulf, says buyers should look for features such as unicast and multicast performance, L2 multicast group capacity, 802.1X/NAC support, storm control, management and usability, and power consumption. “For data centres, QoS, security and manageability are important while its multicast and QoS for branches. Virtualisation is the most important feature for the SP core.”

Because these switches do more than previous-generation products, the first step in picking a product is determining which features matter most – L2 vs. L3, IPv4 vs. IPv6, unicast vs. multicast, managed vs. unmanaged, on-board security vs. no security – and then choosing the device that did the best job in these areas. There are plenty of differences among switches, especially when it comes to newer features. Just because basic functions long ago entered commodity status doesn't mean the switch wars are settled.

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